The Illini travel to East Lansing tonight in what will need to be a Herculean-type effort for the orange and blue to emerge victorious.
The Spartans are currently riding a 10-game winning streak and just picked up a huge come from behind win at Northwestern. They have dropped just one game at home this season and are looking to cap off their run for Big Ten regular season title with wins against Illinois and Wisconsin.
A quick peek at the previous contest with Sparty this year will tell you exactly what you need to know heading into the rematch.
It’s not a question of IF Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. are going to have their way with this team, but can Illinois at least keep it somewhat palatable. With Michael Finke likely out of the lineup again tonight, Illinois really, really struggles to field multiple guys at least 6-foot-7 or taller on the court at the same time.
Greg Eboigbodin is out of his pay grade trying to keep up with the Spartans’ frontcourt lottery picks.
Bridges and Jackson Jr. combined for 52 points (16-19 from the field, 2-4 on three-point field goal attempts, and 18-19 at the free throw line), 19 rebounds and eight blocks. That was with Michael Finke, too.
The Illini will have to keep the league’s two best players in check to make this game semi-competitive.
Lack of Size
Illinois was completely outmatched against Michigan State, and things will only get worse with Michael Finke out. Last time these two teams met, the Spartans outrebounded the Illini 37-15 — yes, 37-15.
Why so few rebounds you ask? Well, Michigan State also shot over 68 percent from the field, its best field goal percentage since 2004. It’s awfully hard to rebound the ball when it only goes through the net. Tom Izzo’s squad also recorded nine blocks, yet another testament to the obvious advantage. Leron Black will have to find a way to get his shot off amongst the trees and avoid foul trouble on the defensive end, which could prove to be just more issues for the Illini.
You might remember the last game because of Kipper Nichols’ stellar second half. With the Spartans distancing themselves from Illinois, Kipper simply took over, kept the Illini in the game, but just prolonged their inevitable demise. Nichols scored a career-high 27 points on 5-8 shooting from behind the arc. We’ve seen glimpses and halves of this Kipper Nichols before, but he is far too inconsistent to lead the team to one of the program’s best wins in years.
Keep It Clean
If Illinois can’t hang onto to the ball, it could get ugly much faster than it already will be. Michigan State was forced into 25 turnovers last time, while the Illini kept it to just 10. Any easy transition points the Illini can get will be huge to keep them in the game. Cassius Winston turned it over eight times last game, so look for Mark Alstork to really pressure the point guard.
Staying out of foul trouble will be key to success tonight as well. Leron Black and Trent Frazier both fouled out and Michael Finke finished with four fouls the last time the two teams got together
A lot will have to go Illinois’ way for them to sneak out of East Lansing for the win, but they’ve hung around before and the Spartans have won four of their last five games by five points or less.